China may be the world's biggest manufacturer of textiles and clothing, but the industry is rarely acknowledged for its fashion and branding. In the next installment of our May Day special, we follow a humble Chinese tailor turned entrepreneur, who from his tiny workshop 30 years ago, built China's biggest winterwear brand.
Gao Dekang is the CEO of Bo Si Deng. Gao has never attended university. Rather, he followed the tradition of his ancestors by becoming a tailor, learning how to sew from none other than his father. In 1976 he started his business with only eight sewing machines in his hometown of Changshu, Jiangsu province. He never imagined that 30 years later, he would be standing on the platform of one of the world’s most reputable educational institutions.
Gao Dekang said, "I was nervous and timid. I felt it was too difficult to give a lecture in Harvard with my education level. It's better for me to have a seat to listen to lectures in Harvard. "
Till now there have been only two Chinese entepreneurs who have been to lecture at Harvard. First was Zhang Ruimin of Haier Company, followed by Liu Chuanzhi from Lenovo Group. Gao was the first Chinese private-owned entrepreneur to have a chance to share his story...at Harvard. What was he going to tell?
Gao Dekang said, "They said I should talk about my success, to talk about the achievement I made during the past years. "
Gao's success is actually the success of Bo Si Deng brand. The name was first recognized by Chinese people in 1994. But it was registered in 1992, when China was changing from a planned economy into a market economy. People had favored foreign brands at that time. So to capitalize on that, Gao wanted to create a Chinese name that sounded foreign. He looked at the world map, and randomly chose Boston...which became Bo Si Deng.
Gao said, "Boston is a northeastern American city, cold and calm, and was culturally-oriented. It raised lots of great people, like the President."
Gao never imagined that 30 years later, he would actually go to Boston, to speak at Harvard. November 21st, 2006 was an unforgettable day for Gao. As he arrived at Harvard, Mrs. Jacqueline O'Neill, the director welcomed Gao. She introduced to Gao Harvard's history and stories.
Gao said, "We sat down to talk about China's development. After that I told her I was a tailor before, and she became very interested, and told me she use to be a tailor too! "
Gao felt that it was such a coincidence that two tailors sat together in Harvard University. And it made the conversation much easier. Mrs. O'Neill sent Gao a picture of Harvard's old campus. However Gao had nothing to send back. He then promised to make down clothes for her, but Mrs. O'Neill said she didn't have her measurements. Gao said no problem, his eyes are like a ruler.
Gao said, "I’m not boasting, but it truly is a skill I have. Few tailors have such skill."
However skill is not the only thing that an entrepreneur needs. Marketing is also critical. China, with its huge area, styles and materials vary greatly from north to south, from east to west
Gao said, "The down clothes industry in China started from the 1970s. But actually some people had already begun to wear them in the sixties. It was considered a luxury to wear down clothes at that time. Nobody realized its market potential."
No fashion or modern ideas were introduced at that time. The only function of the down clothes then was to keep warm. So people called it "Bread Clothes" because of its puffy style. Gao thought the only way to make the down clothes more fashionable was to make it thinner, so that a person’s figure could be seen. But the trick was how to make the material thinner, while still keeping people warm?
Gao said, "At that time, fine soft feather was used in bedroom products like pillows and comforters. Japan demanded that their 90% of its product be made from fine soft feather. Europe and the U.S. were expected theirs to be at 80 percent. Gao knew about these requirements so he thought to himself: perhaps foreign people could enjoy down clothes with high content of fine soft feather."
Gao's company managed to improve the fine soft feather content from 50 percent to 90 percent. With that increase, down clothes got thinner, without compromising its quality nor increasing cost. Such down clothes were warm, and beautiful. To everybody's surprise, a simple change in number stirred a revolution in China's down clothes industry in 1995.
Gao said,"I did not invest any advertisement. I produced 680 thousand pieces, 620 thousand of which were sold out."
In 1995 Bo Si Deng became number one in China's down clothes industry. And in 1997, Bo Si Deng attended China's first Down Clothes Fashion Show.
Gao said, "Gao asked me whether they are ours. He even began to doubt whether they were made by our company. He got extremely excited."
Later in 1997, China's Climbing Team ascended Mount Everest for the first time wearing Bo Si Deng down clothes. Later in 2001 and 2002, Bo Si Deng began to branch into overseas market in the U.S. Japan, and France.
Gao said, "We cooperated with Pierre Cardin. And at my lecture at Harvard, I explained how I tried to incorporate Chinese culture into our brand."
Gao says he's determined to aggressively expand into overseas market. He says he plants to open a Bo Si Deng store just beside Harvard University. And his hope, is to spread Bo Si Deng into each corner of the world.